At 90, Palo Altan looks back on service, philanthropy


Herb Kaiser, World War II veteran and a medical philanthropist, celebrated his 90th birthday on Saturday, June 8, at his midtown Palo Alto home with neighbors, family and a white sheet cake that read "90 wow!"

At his birthday party, Kaiser thanked the small gathering in his living room for attending. He said he felt grateful to share his birthday with the community and his family.

"Nobody's more surprised than I, that I'm alive and I'm 90 years old," Kaiser said.

Kaiser, who has lived in Palo Alto with his wife Joy for 20 years, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was drafted as a young man and entered the Navy in January 1943. Three months later, he began as a volunteer on the U.S.S. Dragonet submarine, named for a family of fishes found in tropical waters in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Kaiser said that the crew's main job was to rescue American flyers that had been shot down in the Pacific Ocean near Japan.

Joy said that the Dragonet was the submarine closest to Japan when the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Kaiser said his team only learned about the bomb later that night, when the submarine surfaced to receive radio signals.

Kaiser's last day in the Navy service was December 7, 1941, the same day Pearl Harbor was bombed. He went on to attend Swarthmore College on the G.I. Bill, where he met Joy Sundgaard, then a freshman. Two years later, they were married.

"If I hadn't been so lucky as to marry my wife, I wouldn't be alive today," Kaiser said. "We've been together 63 years. I just hope she looks after herself as much as she looks after me."

After graduating from college, Kaiser went to find work in Washington D.C. while Joy finished school. He said he actually wanted to become a lawyer, and even was accepted into Columbia Law School, but decided against it.

"I was more sure that I wanted to marry Joy than that I wanted to become a lawyer," he said.

Kaiser also turned down an opportunity to work for the Central Intelligence Agency because he was not interested in the secret service. Instead, he found a job at the U.S. Department of State. Kaiser was contracted to issue visas to Polish veterans who remained in Scotland after serving alongside Allied forces in Britain and did not want to return to communist Poland.

Kaiser described the experience as eye-opening.

"I realized how important foreign affairs were to the U.S.," he said. "I felt that the role was important to society."

Soon after, Herb and Joy both applied for and passed a test to work full-time for the Foreign Service and were stationed in Yugoslavia in 1955 for their first assignment.

Joy said their line of work lead them all over Eastern Europe, from Romania and Hungary to her favorite assignment location, Croatia. Herb returned to the United States for a brief time to study Eastern Europe at Harvard University, becoming one of what he said were "literally a handful" of experts on the area at the time.

Near the end of their time with the Foreign Service, the Kaisers served one assignment that was not in Eastern Europe, heading to South Africa. Herb would also go on to work as a political counselor at the American Embassy there.

However, when the couple arrived in 1961, Herb received unfortunate news from a doctor: he had melanoma, a dangerous skin cancer. He underwent a successful operation to remove the cancerous cells in December of that year.

"At the time, the survival rate was minimal for melanoma," he said. "I am alive today because of the superb medical surgeon who performed that operation."

While Kaiser was in the hospital for his surgery, he said he could not help but notice what he described as the "discrepancies of apartheid."

"The health of blacks and whites were like two different universes," he recalled.

This observation spawned the Kaisers' second career as medical philanthropists. In 1982, after returning from the Foreign Service, the duo founded a non-profit organization called Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB) to help black South Africans learn advanced training in medicine, nursing, dentistry and other health professions.

"Undoubtedly, we're all affected by experiences in our lives," Herb said. "Accidents, unforeseen developments shape your life."

Joy said the organization raised $27 million in less than 30 years and has helped roughly 10,000 South Africans.

To document their experience with MESAB, the couple co-wrote a book, "Against the Odds: Health & Hope in South Africa." Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist and a friend of the Kaisers (a framed photo with Mandela hangs on a wall in their home), wrote the book's forward, thanking the Kaisers for their work "on the behalf of our people."

The Kaisers moved to their house on Ramona Street in 1993 and have lived there since. Herb said that the reason they chose Palo Alto was twofold: he fell in love with the Bay Area during his Navy training on Treasure Island and their daughter, Gail, lives across the street.

"He was a Brooklyn-born kid," Joy said. "He took one look at the Bay Area and said, 'This is where I want to live,' but it took him 50 years to get back here."

The Kaisers both said that they enjoy the creative and diverse nature of their neighborhood.

"Joy and I have lived in so many communities around the whole, and as far as I'm concerned, I do not know of any other community that I refer to as an oasis of diversity," he said. "It's really a source of hope for the future."

Though 90 years old, Kaiser is still involved in the community. He volunteers as a participant for Healthy Aging, a Stanford University School of Medicine research project that aims to prevent and control chronic diseases as well as promote health and wellness. He reasons that he initially got involved because the research is useful for the community and society in general.

When asked what was next for the couple, Joy joked. "We'll walk gently on the beach or something like that."


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